The Three Irreducible Elements of a Successful Innovation Program


In a recent coaching dialogue with a C-level executive of an international manufacturer, I was asked what minimum elements were necessary for a successful innovation program.

This is a very common question that comes from being overwhelmed with the enormous body of innovation information that comes from the popular press on a daily basis.  All of them clamor to be the “tool set” that makes innovation possible – yet somehow there is always something new right around the corner.

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You see, it’s very human to be fearful of what we might not know, and we assume that if we had just a little more information, this crazy hard task of innovation would somehow just unfold easily in front of us.  Investing in more information is a “safe” activity, so there is an insatiable desire to be sure we aren’t missing out on some new technique that will allow our competition to trump us at our own game.

The real formula is deceptively simple:

Successful Innovation = Right Project + Right Team + Right Plan

It’s not an accident that I listed Right Project first.  It’s easy to see that it all pivots around this element – or does it?  Jim Collins told us that the most important element is the Right Team, and the rest will take care of itself.  Certainly Right Plan is dependent on the first two – or is it?  Many a great transformation has begun with a well thought out plan.  Think of the historical event that the movie 300 is based on, for example – it was a solid plan executed courageously that changed history.

The truth is that all three elements are equally necessary and must be present for successful innovation.

Remove any one of these three elements and you’ll have a program that just won’t deliver to its full potential.

The Right Project

The process of finding the right project begins with establishing a very complete understanding of the existing firm and its market and customers, centered around the jobs that the customer “hires” the firm to do.  The business model canvas and Growth Zone methodology are useful here to provide a disciplined way to scan for opportunity first in the existing customer base, then in adjacencies.   For a more detailed description of how to harness disruption to discover opportunity, including mapping techniques and tools, see this six-post series on how to start with technology trends and develop a short list of potential projects.

Once captured, the project then needs to be described in a way that allows it to become a focal point of activity for the firm. Experience has shown that projects that have a great narrative, a solid visualization and good analytics can transcend functional resistance of the established firm (more detail here).

Great projects alone just don’t go anywhere.  In my work with clients, I spend a significant amount of time unearthing really good stuff that’s been orbiting around firms without an implementation team and plan – in some cases for years.  It is not uncommon for firms to have millions of dollars of opportunity that is not visible to management, upstream of operations, waiting to be activated.

The Right Team

It takes a special group of people, organized in a very specific way, to do the heavy lifting of innovation.  It takes a diverse mix of individuals that are in one way extraordinarily familiar with the current business, yet paradoxically able to step away from it and see it in a new light.  The roles needed are a mix of sponsorship, leadership, integration ability and subject matter expertise.  I have written specifically about this in a recent series of articles and blog posts.  This resource needs to come from the existing operation, usually found by doing a careful prioritization of existing programs to free up talent and funding.

Using this element with a weak project has a real dark side for stakeholders.  The risk of losing large chunks of time, money and talent is very real.  The insidious blind spot is that a high-functioning team can presume that a previous success will guarantee another successful outcome.  I call this phenomenon The Big Miss and have written about it in more detail here.  Red flags for these projects include over dependence on internal resources for market information, large early investments before proof of concept and a business case that doesn’t take into account product substitution.

The Right Plan

I have alluded to it being crazy hard to do innovation, and it deserves repeating – innovation is the hardest thing a firm can do – and it’s also the most remunerative.  Taking the time to carefully plan the project is essential to a successful outcome.  A great plan has clarity on the true starting point, the exact interim milestones and clear completion criteria.  It has the three key elements of solid narrative, clear visuals and precise analysis.

What to look for in a great plan:

  1. Risks are made visible and prioritized by potential impact
  2. Budget and effort are assigned to removing risks prior to investments in scale
  3. Tightly controlled beta testing with “friendly” customers is completed prior to production lockdown.
  4. A sophisticated review of changes to both the supply chain and distribution organization has been completed by a subject matter expert.

The reason this planning is so important is that every significant innovation program goes through the “zone of confusion” where project leadership will hit a very real wall and management will be tempted to give in to the nagging fear of failure and be tempted to pull the plug.  The only thing that keeps the team and leaders on track at that point is a well developed plan that allows well reasoned problem solvers to creatively breach the resistance and move ahead.

The bonus element: Time.  The above discussion all sits on the platform of a specific window in time.  Once a program is authorized, it’s typical for a group to assume that development has ceased on competitive products and services.  The best way to avoid this is to have no sacred cows and force each program to refresh its market authorizations annually.

I was once called to be a subject matter participant on an enterprise scale customer order fulfillment program that had a three-year delivery window (which due to scope creep grew even longer).  The program was never completed and was eventually re-architected to be built out of off the shelf modules – Why?  Time eroded the business case and relevance of the program before it could be delivered.

If you are a regular reader of this newsletter, you are seeing improvements in your innovation based on the concepts we talk about here.  The hard truth though, is that most of what we discuss here will remain at the level of theory without a system to customize and activate it.  

In addition to speaking and consulting,  I do work with a small number of accountable growth leaders who are committed to getting their firms to function at the highest level through executive coaching.  

If you’d like to discuss what that would look like, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or email me here.

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